Titillation vs. Illumination

When you start working in a communications medium such as PowerPoint, is your intent to titillate or to illuminate? The choice you make will determine how your presentation will look, and what kind of effect it will have on your audience.

The word titillate means to excite another, especially in a superficial, pleasurable manner; and the word illuminate means to provide intellectual or spiritual enlightenment and understanding. The American Heritage dictionary includes a very interesting quote as an example of usage for titillate:

"Once you decide to titillate instead of illluminate…you create a climate of expectation that requires a higher and higher level of intensity." – Bill Moyers

Wow_3There’s no question the choice we’ve made in corporate communications, judging by our unquenchable thirst for "razzle-dazzle" and "wow". But is titillating media the right strategic choice that will help us find what we’re looking for?

The main arguments people make in defense of adding "bells and whistles" and "special effects" to their presentations is that people have shorter attention spans, and that everybody else is doing it. There’s no doubt that we live in a culture of titillation, with an ever higher level of intensity of graphical effects streaming across our TV sets, movie screens and computer monitors. But like an addiction, the communication high is only temporary and superficial, until the next hit of titillating media comes along. 

The root of the word titillation means "to tickle", which is really as serious as titillating media can get. It works at the surface, pleasing your senses, but doesn’t go any deeper than that. Because titillating media assumes people are not very deep, when you use it your relationship with your audience will only last until they see someone who will tickle them better than you did. Titillating media is disposable, transitory, and dependent on an intensifying flow of more titillating media.

Illumination, on the other hand, comes from the root "to light up", which implies that something is happening on the interior of the audience. When you use it, it sparks an internal source of understanding, awakening an insight in your audience they didn’t know they had. Because illuminating media assumes that that people have an interior light that can be lit up, your relationship with your audience is one of mutual respect. Illuminating media is enduring, classic and independent of trends and gimmicks.

To be sure, illuminating media is hard to find these days, because everyone seems to be on the titillation train. But if you’re ready to get off the train and take a different path to achieve the communications goals you really want, try lighting up your audience instead.

Tip: The most promising principles to help you produce illuminating media are derived from recent research in multimedia learning. These principles lay out a pathway to produce media that is clean, simple, elegant, and relentlessly focused on helping people understand something you want to communicate. You won’t see this style of media at your local movie theater, but if you give it a try, you just might start seeing it in the form your own improved communication results.

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